The other day in Bartlett Sher's LCT office, after a rehearsal for "Golden Boy," he and I briefly batted back and forth a handful of subjects related to this 1937 Clifford Odets play. Any one of them could have occupied a theater scholar for years.
How does the play compare to Odets 1935 work, "Awake and Sing!," which Sher staged to acclaim for LCT six years ago? He replied: "''Awake and Sing!' took on a variety of issues but was essentially concentrated on a family's life in the Bronx. 'Golden Boy' is a much bigger canvas."
How so? "For one thing," Sher explained, "this is a genuine American tragedy. Tragedy is something we're not supposed to talk about anymore. And if it is expressed today, it's usually through irony or absurdity, not by giving it the full weight it needs to have."
"Golden Boy" also takes on the topic of success. Sher said: "It's hard to get people to understand how the play's central young character, Joe Bonaparte, could have felt a pull between the artistic fulfillment of playing the violin and the money-making of being a top boxer." Illuminating that conflict, Sher continued, is especially challenging for a young audience today. "Joe's initial dilemma wouldn't occur to them in the same way. Today, money and fame are the primary goals, no question."
Just because a 2012 audience would have ideas about "Golden Boy''s themes that are different from those of theatergoers in 1937 doesn't mean that Sher plans to dress up his production in deliberate relevance. "I am trying to make the play true for what it is. I have to trust that it still has something to tell us, and that there is still some continuity in how audiences experience the piece." He added: "My job is to frame the questions the play asks."
Sher said that it is "very difficult to do Odets' work well" but that it is very worthwhile to make the effort required to achieve first-rate results. "He has a prose skill, an ability to write dialogue in a particular American idiom, that is extraordinary." What's more: "He was doing things in the 1930s that no one else was attempting. 'Golden Boy' has a damaged woman, Lorna, who is unlike any female character being written then. And there's a gay gangster who is also singular. Odets was very forward-thinking."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.